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A cantata by any other name doth sound as sweet

Notes on music for double choir with piano by Laurdisen and Dove

  • program note

On Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs and Dove’s The Passing of the Year, for a Chronos Vocal Ensemble concert.

In the Western art music tradition, ‘cycle’ typically conjures one of two things. The first is a collection of solo songs with piano accompaniment, conceived of and performed as a unified sequence, with texts either by a single poet or assembled upon a single theme.Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe are two of the best-known examples. The second is cyclic form, in which some recognizable melodic material is deployed by the composer in more than one movement of a work as a unifying device.As in Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantaisie, Beethoven’s Op. 101, or several of César Franck’s works. Both Mid-Winter Songs and The Passing of the Year take up some of these traits, unifying them even within that impossibly diverse genre, the 20th-century cantata.

Mid-Winter Songs entirely comprises settings of poems by Robert Graves (1895-1985). Reading Graves’ complete works (twice!), Lauridsen “became very much taken with the richness, elegance and extraordinary beauty of his poetry and his insights regarding the human experience”. Lauridsen continues: “Five diverse poems with a common ‘winter’ motif (a particular favorite of mine, rich in the symbolism of dying and rejuvenation, light and darkness) suggested a cohesive cycle. The principal musical materials for the entire work, especially the intervals of an ascending major ninth (the first interval of the work, heard in the piano) and descending major second (heard clearly in the sopranos when they first cry out ‘dying’), are derived from the opening choral setting of ‘Dying Sun,’ and recur throughout the piece.

How different that same major second first sung by the sopranos sounds in the piano at the opening and conclusion of ‘Mid-Winter Waking!’ The second and fourth movements are lively scherzos with numerous time signature changes to keep performers on their toes, and audiences on the edge of their seats. In the chant-like middle movement, Lauridsen takes Graves’ “despite the snow, despite the falling snow” and fashions it into a refrain.

The cycle was first written in 1980 for the 100th anniversary of the University of Southern California. Lauridsen conceived the cycle as “not accompanied by piano but for choir and piano.” The work once included a sixth poem; when he excised that sixth movement (now published separately), Lauridsen expanded the interlude that is heard near the end of “Intercession in Late October” in which the work’s opening is recast in a very different mood. This passage is of the exceptional beauty many choristers now expect from Lauridsen: here, the experience is as if one is listening to someone else’s nostalgia.

Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year likewise underwent an instrumental expansion, although the structure remained unchanged when Dove added an additional piano and percussion. In Dove’s cantata, numbers 1–3, 4–6, and 7 loosely comprise a three-movement textual structure, acknowledged by the composer himself:

The first [movement] looks forward to summer, beginning with a line from Blake (‘O Earth, O Earth return!’). ‘The narrow bud’ comes from Blake’s To Autumn, but is a description of summer; the rapid questions of ‘Answer July’ suggest the quickening senses, the excitement of everything bursting into life, and summer’s triumphant arrival.

The second section follows the passing of summer. It begins in sultry heat, with a song from the opening scene of David and Bethsabe (‘Hot sun, cool fire’): a girl bathing in a spring feels the power and danger of her beauty. The section ends with the sense of mortality the Autumn brings: ‘Adieu! Farewell earth’s bliss’, from Summer’s Last Will and Testament, heralds the death of summer. The cycle ends in winter, on New Year’s Eve with a passage from Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

This song cycle is dedicated to the memory of my mother, who died too young.

The musical structure follows directly from the text. White-note tonal centres predominate in the outer movements as described by Dove. The music traverses the move from A-minor to its relative C-major at two scales. Broadly, we can hear this across numbers from ‘Invocation’ through ‘Answer July’; these three numbers are performed attacca (continuously), and are linked by the pitch E. within ‘Ring out, wild bells’. Dove has remarked on this feature that he unconsciously writes into the structure of his works, describing it poetically as “a sort of ghost of sonata form.”

The unifying device of cyclical thematic recall similarly occurs at two scales. At the larger scale, the opening of ‘Invocation’ is recalled at the beginning of ‘Ring out, wild bells’ (structurally, this is not unlike Lauridsen’s interludium). At the level of the individual song, four numbers—2, 4, 6, and 7—feature the return of opening musical material at a number’s close. An E spanning five octaves (in the piano, of course!) opens and closes ‘The narrow bud’. Dove deploys this distinctive motive in keeping with the punctuation in Blake’s verse, which Dove sets in counterpoint to ‘Sumer is icumen in,’ a 13th-century English round that is also paraphrased by Britten at the opening of A Ceremony of Carols. (More than one commentator has noted a similarity in Dove’s music to Britten’s choral style; Ceremony is among the Britten works Dove singles out as formative at home as a boy.)

Dove’s second section distinguishes itself tonally, as black-note keys are to the fore in numbers 4–6. What is more directly audible, however, is the complete shift in soundscape: compare the rhythmic drive of the end of ‘Answer July’ to the wash of sotto voce sighs in the choir above heavily pedaled tremolos in the piano that open ‘Hot sun, cool fire.’ In the Blake settings, compare the driving, canonic, polyrhythmic layering of voices in numbers 1 and 2 to the constant pulse in the piano through all of ‘Ah, Sun-flower!’ Compare the sheer exuberance of the Dickinson setting to the limping funeral march of ‘Adieu!’ (The ‘limping’ is caused by measures of 5/4 infecting the slow 4/4 framework.) The procession stops three times to solemnly intone “I am sick, I must die.”

Fans of the major American minimalists will recognize John Adams’ influence in Dove’s active keyboard writing built upon small repeating cells. Dove acknowledges the influence, but notes that his organizational methods and approach to melody are distinct. From Steve Reich, borrows ‘phasing’ (a special kind of close canon)—heard here quite clearly in the opening movement and ‘Ah, Sun-flower!’, for instance, when the same melody is sung by different voices that enter just a beat or two apart.

The other key influence on Dove’s sound is Hindustani classical music, which Dove encountered during his studies at Cambridge and on a three-month visit to India in 1980. In his dissertation on Passing, Brendan Lord notes that the layering of the piano, and different sub-groups—especially voice-pairs—of the choir, may be understood as a Westernized adaptation of the hierarchy within North Indian ensembles.

The rich layering of poetry, stylistic ghosts, musical form, and cultural influences into a cohesive whole make for a wonderful experience for choir, conductor, and audience alike: please enjoy this evening’s performance.